The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

The Constitutional Role and Accountability of UK Civil Servants - Summary

This is a summary of the constitutional and ethical framework within which UK civil servants work. It will provide sufficient information for many readers, but please follow these links if you would like to read more detailed discussions of civil servants' constitutional role and accountability.

The Traditional Whitehall and Westminster Model

Government in the United Kingdom (the UK) is built on the assumption of Parliamentary Sovereignty; all key decisions are made by Parliamentarians and there is no higher authority. Legitimacy and democracy are maintained because Ministers are answerable to Parliament, and the House of Commons is elected by the people. Decisions are taken by Ministers (and if necessary by the whole Cabinet) and implemented by a neutral civil service. Put shortly, therefore, there is a simple chain of command. Civil servants are accountable to Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, whose Members are accountable to their constituents.

However, as politicians are inevitably subject to short term and selfish pressures, there needs to be a unified administration in which officials ensure the common good or public interest. To do this, they must be politically neutral and must demonstrate pecuniary and moral integrity. They must not be motivated by the desire to make money.

The 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report led to the creation of a civil service

with the following core values:

The 1918 Haldane Report recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The relationship between civil servants and Ministers became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise.

Crucially, therefore, the UK Civil Service has no "constitutional personality" or responsibility separate from the Government of the day. It is there to provide the Government of the day with advice on the formulation of the policies, to assist in carrying out the Government's decisions, and to manage and deliver Government services. Civil servants therefore ... :

The Civil Service Code 2010 provides a clear, helpful and commendably brief summary of the values that should be common to all civil servants of all grades, and the standards of behaviour that are expected of them. The code defines the civil servants' four core values in the following way:

The Armstrong Memorandum summarises the duties and responsibilities of civil servants. The most important parts read as follows:

Civil servants who appear before Select Committees are required to follow the 'Osmotherly Rules'. Put shortly, officials may describe and explain the reasons which caused Ministers to adopt existing policies but they should not give information which undermines collective responsibility nor get into a discussion about alternative policies. In particular, they are not allowed to divulge:

The Carltona Principle is the legal principle under which civil servants exercise power on behalf of Ministers. In short, there are two grounds which justify a Minister being able to authorise an officer to exercise a power vested in the Minister:

Accountability means being held to account, scrutinised, and being required to give an account or explanation. If it is effective, accountability causes the decision maker to think hard about the range of decisions that are available to him/her, and the fairness, appropriateness and proportionality of each possible decision. Jonathan Haidt refers to this as exploratory thought, and argues (I think correctly) that effective accountability has three vital elements:

(Apart from their relationship with Ministers), civil servants are in principle accountable upwards through audit and Parliamentary scrutiny, and outwards through transparency and openness to stakeholders and to the public at large, and also through Judicial Review (JR). But only JR meets all three of the tests of effective accountability summarised above.

Civil servants are accountable for three things:-

  1. Our stewardship of public funds etc. including: ◦ regularity which means the requirement for all expenditure and receipts to be dealt with in accordance with the legislation authorising them, any delegated authority and the rules of Government accounting ◦ propriety which is a further requirement that expenditure and receipts should be dealt with in accordance with Parliament's intentions and the principles of Parliamentary control, and in accordance with the values and behaviour appropriate to the public sector - see below. ◦ value for money (VFM), and ◦ effective management systems.
  2. Compliance ◦ with the law ◦ with Government policies and initiatives, and ◦ with public expectations of proper conduct:- see "the Seven Principles" listed below.
  3. Our Performance, including ◦ against objectives and targets, and ◦ in delivering acceptable levels of service to the public.

More detail, if you need it, is here.

The Seven Principles of Public Life were endorsed in the Nolan Report as encapsulating the values and behaviour appropriate to the public sector: A short summary is as follows:

  1. Don't bend or break the rules
  2. Put in place and follow clear procedures
  3. If approval is needed, get it first
  4. Don't allow a conflict of interest to appear to affect a decision
  5. Don't use public money for private benefit
  6. Be even-handed Record the reasons for decisions

Comment: Various parts of the above model are being increasingly tested by modern developments. See the notes on civil service reform for a detailed discussion.